They're usually men, often very young, with a
history of having once been vibrantly active in
life. It is that very zest for life that is frequently
the undoing of it. Sometimes sustained in beach
or pool dives, motorcycle or car accidents, the
cause is unimportant because the tragic outcome
is the same. These are people with "spinal
Approximately 10,000 people in the United States
sustain spinal cord injuries each year. Emergency
physicians, often the first to care for them,
sometimes have the dark task of informing recently
healthy young men that they will never move or
feel their limbs again, or have control of their
bowel or bladder, or sexual function. More often
we meet these patients with spinal cord injuries
in the months and years after their trauma. They
may have minor ills that anyone can incur or they
may present with complications of their paralysis
such as pneumonia, urinary tract infections, or
Treating the ailments of paralyzed patients
is not usually the most difficult task. What is
difficult is trying to be oblivious to the natural
shock of seeing young men and women imprisoned
in otherwise healthy bodies.
This is how one nurse I work with talks of his
experience in caring for a quadriplegic.
"I met Todd when he was a year and half
post injury. He had jumped into a pool and hit
the coping. He was taking some special ed classes
at college. There were several others there that
were quads and paras and I had lots of time to
watch how they interacted. And you know, they
did a lot of laughing. And, though it's something
we would never dare to do, among themselves they
even joke about their disabilities. I think I
found that what they really want most is to just
be accepted, not as a paraplegic or a quad or
a disabled person, but just as a person."
Non-disabled people often find themselves in
a quandary over how to deal with the handicapped.
How can anyone with any sense of empathy ignore
such physical tragedy as if it were in the same
class as race or color? Is it possible to be that
"The most difficult thing I had to deal
with," my nurse said, "was the realization
that this could be anybody. It could be me in
that chair but for some drunk driver crossing
a center line."
The non-disabled who witness the severe handicaps
of paralyzed patients and think of themselves
in that same situation often have the attitude
that "if it was me, I'd rather be dead."
However, that attitude of "better off dead"
is an assumption that is grossly wrong.
A recent survey was taken of the attitudes of
emergency room personnel and of those who had
sustained spinal cord injuries. Among the E.R.
group only 18% declared they would be "glad
to be alive" if they ever suffered a severe
spinal cord injury with paralysis. On the other
hand, 92% of the group who actually were paralyzed
declared they were "glad to be alive."
Only 17% of non-disabled felt they could ever
anticipate a good quality of life with a spinal
cord injury, but 86% of the paralyzed group felt
they had a good quality of life.
The perception of the non-disabled is that those
with spinal cord injuries lead abysmal lives.
That attitude, which affects how we perceive and
deal with our handicapped neighbors, is what needs
to be changed.
The quality of life and self-esteem of the most
severely handicapped, those with spinal cord injuries,
is not the grim life that the non-disabled perceive.
On the contrary, research has shown that most
people with severe physical disabilities perceive
themselves to be enjoying a high quality of life.
"We sell these people short," my nurse
said. "We treat them sometimes like little
kids. They're not. They can rise to heights you
can't even imagine."
Although we can never walk in their shoes, or
"sit in their chairs," we can perhaps
alter our attitudes and demeanor in dealing with
the handicapped as "normal" people by
realizing that they perceive themselves to be
happy and productive individuals. And how many
of us "normal" non-disabled people can